New York City: Is Radon a Game Changer?

There’s an incongruity in official New York City policy: The position that fracking is too dangerous for “our” watershed, but a necessary evil elsewhere––because New York’s economy “needs” gas* to grow, “needs” gas to clean up our dirty boilers–is part and parcel of PlaNYC, (the Mayor’s blueprint to “green” the city).

While PlaNYC has many positive features, in this regard it encourages fracking. Even officials who’ve otherwise been champions against fracking have parroted this incongruous policy. Over and over again they rail against the evils of fracking in our watershed, yet maintain that, “the City needs the gas.” With rare exception, officials seem terrified to “just say no.”

While New Yorkers Against Fracking and grassroots activists across the state build a movement to ban fracking in New York State, those officials who’ve hesitated before may soon find saying, “no” is the only responsible answer. One reason for that change may be radon.

When people in NYC first learn there’s radon in gas, they are generally shocked. When they learn that radon levels in their gas might rise, due to plans to deliver high-radon Marcellus gas directly to city stoves, they are alarmed.

Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. Residents in NYC who use gas stoves and laundry dryers have even more chance of inhaling radon, because our apartment kitchens are typically small, enclosed spaces without adequate ventilation.

A current debate about how much radon is likely to be piped into city homes was spurred by a report from Dr. Marvin Resnikoff, which estimated radon levels from Marcellus gas up to 70 times the average. Spectra Energy, builder of a pipeline planned to transport that gas into Manhattan, countered by commissioning 2 studies to refute Resnikoff. The United States Geological Survey then released a report measuring actual levels at a handful of Marcellus wells. Dr. Resnikoff has taken issue with the methodology of that report, and even the study’s author notes that the small sampling is preliminary. Still, readings from several wells were high enough to be problematic.

What’s needed is an in-depth, peer-reviewed, statistically significant study of radon levels from Marcellus wells, plus a survey of actual city ventilation conditions. Without that, it’s not unreasonable, even for those who insist that “New York needs the gas,” to call for a halt to delivery of Marcellus gas to NYC, and any new pipelines to supply it. It’s only reasonable to call for new laws requiring public utilities such as Con Edison to deliver gas at “safe” levels. It’s reasonable to enforce building code in city kitchens, many of which do not meet ventilation requirements.

But the real solution is to simply skip over yet another layer of regulation and legislation and admit, once and for all, that the use of gas simply causes us too much grief. The reasonable plan is to stop using gas––or any fossil fuel––altogether, and move on to where we must head anyway: to renewables.

*For the uninitiated, we refer here to methane, so-called “natural” gas, rather than gasoline.

Clare Donohue is Founding Member of the Sane Energy Project.  www.SaneEnergyProject.org

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